Thursday, February 23, 2017

Party of one

The other day I was to play for a nursing home group but only one resident showed up. It turned out the activities director was out of town and failed to inform the community.   When I arrived Ms. Joanne (not her real name) was sitting at the front table. She was slightly slumped over and had her eyes closed as if she was in deep thought about something. She wore a headband laced with pink silk flowers in her white hair.

"Looks like it's going to be just you and me today. We can have our own party." I said and got out my guitar. I brought my songbook and set it on the table between us.  "Let's sing a happy song." I suggested and we sang, "This Little Light of Mine." After that I let her decide what we would sing next. I'd prompt her by giving choices of what kind of song. "Should we sing a funny song or a serious one?" (funny she smiled) and we sang, "Oh my darlin', oh my darlin', oh my darlin Clementine...."

When we sang, "He's Got the Whole World In His Hands," we mentioned all the names of her family members and her home town in West Virginia, Charlottesville, the state of Virginia and the whole world. We just kept expanding our circle of who we sang the song to.

It was actually quite a nice time we had. I enjoyed talking in between songs and learning things about her. She would drift off into  a story about living in the mountains in West Virginia back in the day. Or she'd tell me about her granddaughter who she hoped was coming to visit her later that day.

I was struck by how much music is a connecting force in our lives. Had my class been about another subject - it may not have worked out to have just one participant in the room.  It could have been awkward since we did not know each other at all. But through songs and sharing, it didn't matter no one else was around. In fact, I was glad to get to know her.

Oh, the picture above is one I post for Valentine's Day. It is of a stump from my yard when 5 acres of forest were destroyed in order to build a housing development. The stump is what is left of my favorite tree that stood right outside my window. I was stunned when I saw it made a heart shape- the picture was taken moments after it was cut down. To me it was saying, "You can cut us down but you can't get rid of the love and the heart of the forest. "

Monday, January 30, 2017

Music of Acceptance

Hello everyone! This has been quite an interesting winter.  Something I feel fortunate about is that the work that I do brings people joy, comfort, hope and peace. Working at the hospital and playing for patients in the ICU is the work I feel so grateful to do. Last week I played for a dying loved one surrounded by family and friends. Since my mother passed away in the spring, a lot of new music has come to me that has brought me a lot of healing and comfort. It feels good to play this music for others.  I have given a lot of thought to the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) and I am now in the acceptance phase. As a result, the guitar pieces that have come to me reflect the peace and acceptance I am feeling.

I have many new compositions that are not yet titled but here is one I like. It is an uplifting piece with an upbeat rhythm that speaks of moving forward with hope. Here is a link to that piece so you can listen. 

I've also been enjoying leading sing alongs with people and it is especially gratifying to see how music is such a bridge to connecting people of all backgrounds and ages.  In light of this past week with the tumultuous political climate all around us, it is nice to see that my work is about connecting and bringing hope. Singing songs like, "This Little Light of Mine," "Down by the Riverside," "I Got Rhythm,"  - from folk songs to show tunes to hymns -- we each have our own memories connected to these songs.

I published a new article, "My New Sonic Reality: In Harmony"  in Hearing Health Foundation at magazine recently. You can read it at this link. 

I've also been doing a lot of art and the picture above is my latest creation called, "Fire Lotus."

Thanks for stopping by and feel free to get in touch!

Monday, January 16, 2017

My ACA (Obamacare) Testimonial 2017

Today is MLK Day and in his memory I sang Civil Rights songs with my nursing home group. "This Little Light of Mine," "We Shall Overcome," "We Shall Not Be Moved," "Down by the Riverside." I love these songs and they mean so much more to me in the face of what we are facing now in America.

I spent this morning sending my ACA testimonial of how Obamacare (ACA) has benefitted me.
In honor of MLK day and speaking out for what is right, I share an excerpt of my letter  below. Thank you for reading and wishing us all a time when we will be free from fear and injustice.

To Whom it May Concern:

My name is Renée Blue O’Connell and I am writing to ask that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) be protected for the American people. What follows is my story and how the ACA has helped me.

Like many Americans, I have a disability. My disability is profound deafness.  A musician since my early teens, my deafness was an obstacle that kept me from pursuing my dream to become a professional musician.  In 2009, all of that changed after undergoing cochlear implant surgery. After a year of successful aural rehabilitation, I was emboldened to leave the safe confines of my administrative assistant job where I worked 14 years to pursue music full time.

I became a Certified Music Practitioner, which trained me to play therapeutic music at the bedside for the ill and dying.  Employed as a Musician-in-Residence at the University of Virginia Health System, I have provided music for many people in their 11th hour.  I witnessed a homeless man revive from a 4 month coma who was found nearly beaten to death one summer night. I played my guitar for a woman as she was taken off life support while she took her last breaths. I comforted a young girl, a burn victim, whose face was scared beyond recognition. Though I walked into their room a stranger, with music, all barriers were left behind.

In this work I have found my life’s calling. Even so, this life path came with much sacrifice. Before the ACA, I was unable to get health insurance because of my pre-existing condition of profound deafness. This meant I was unable to get necessary routine audiology services. As well as other routine check ups.

Cochlear implants are very expensive devices requiring upkeep and maintenance. As technology continues to change and improve, implant companies continue to upgrade sound processors. A cochlear implant recipient has no choice out of medical necessity but to obtain upgraded processors as old ones become obsolete. My recent upgrade cost just under $11,000.  Even with ACA health care, I am left with a hefty payment that I estimate to take 3 years for me to pay off with my current wages.

I am very grateful to the ACA because I have been able to contribute to my community and for the greater good doing such meaningful work. Yet it is very discouraging to be living in times where my health care is now being threatened.  I face the real possibility of returning to a life where I am discriminated against because I am profoundly deaf. 

I appeal to those of you who can vote to save ACA. Thank you very much for your hard work. 

Respectfully yours,

Renée Blue O’Connell, CMP
Certified Music Practitioner

#ACAtestimony, #cochlearimplantaca, #obamacaretestimonial, #acarights, #acaspeaker

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

New Year's Eve Labyrinth Walk Improvisational Music

Given that the year of 2016 was ridden with loss and many challenges, my NYE gig playing guitar for the Labyrinth walk at the Unitarian church was a fitting way to end it. As you can see from the picture above, walking this maze is a good metaphor for life. At times we have to stop amidst our steps going forward in order to move over and give room for someone else to pass by. At times we have to slow down more so as not to get dizzy when looking down at the circular maze. We have to walk slow enough to see the big picture and gain perspective. Yet if we walk too slowly, we lose our balance.

My job was to accompany these walkers on NYE who came to end a year of life's experiences. Had they also lost someone close to them? Had they had changes come to them without warning? What are they letting go of and what do they wish to bring into the New Year?

I played my guitar without any script or sheet music. I flowed into one continuous stream of musical ideas, each one bringing a nuance and color and ambiance to help them move through their memories and dreams and hopes.

This year will be my 42nd year playing the guitar and I do have to say that nothing else fills me with such a feeling of joy and expansion and beauty.

What have you let go of this year and what dreams do you intend to plant?

Wishing you all the best in 2017!! Thank you for all of your support!

as always, my website is here:

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Christmas moments

This holiday season was one that brought challenge as well as joy.  Something I have learned about the darkening days surrounding the Winter solstice is that all religions talk about finding the light in the darkest days. That means that this time of year is about struggle as well as joy.

In my work I saw once again how the power of music can reach a soul and uplift one's heart in ways that no other thing can do.

On Christmas Eve, I played for some ICU patients at the hospital. One woman in particular stands out to me. I saw that she had no cards in her room nor any evidence of having had any visitors. She appeared to be in a lot of physical pain. I went to her and asked if she'd like for me to play her some Christmas music and she nodded yes. As I played through my favorites, "The First Noel," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,""Silent Night," tears streamed down the woman's face.  Then she said at one point, "You are such a gift! Thank you so much for coming to play for me." Her face brightened as we talked a bit and she was smiling when I left her. Though I walked in her room a stranger, with music we connected.

While playing on the ICU floor, I kept getting more requests to go and play for more families and patients. At one point, even the housekeeper stopped working and came to sing, "Joy to the World" with me.

As I had been having some challenges of my own (a recent knee injury had me a bit down), these moments really uplifted me too. It was wonderful to see the staff in holiday spirits and spirits of the patients lifted up.

Now as I prepare for the New Year ahead, I'd like to thank everyone who reads my blog and who supports my work and me in many ways.

Happy New Year to you! I wish you all the best life has to offer in the coming year and evermore!

The picture above is on the doorway of an assisted living center where I played. I love this message!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

On failing well

Recent political events have really put a serious and gloomy feeling in the air. Many are afraid of losing their health care and benefits and that's not even half of what is going on. Rather than continue to focus on the negatives, I wanted to share with you a story of my favorite failure story.

A few years ago, I took an online jazz improvisation course. I was in way over my head as the course covered material that was new for me and a real stretch. I was excited by the challenge though and did my best with each homework assignment.

However, when I began to get zeros as my grade, (by other students in the class) I was at first very offended. I went on the forum for the class and wrote them a note, "To all of you who gave me a zero..." and I told them how hard I tried. But you know, we are not graded by the effort we make. We aren't graded for getting out of our comfort zone and showing the world our vulnerability. We are only graded by the final results and outcome of our efforts.

Each week, I had to post my recording and analysis of jazz tune. I had never tried to play a solo before on the guitar with a recording and all of the scales and chords and rhythms were pretty challenging even for the advanced player. I was failing the course but I did not know it at the time. Zero after zero, I still believed in what I did. It was hard to read the critical comments on my solos.

Then one day I got silly. We were to record a solo for this interesting Carla Bley song, "Olhos De Gato." I tried so hard to get a good recording but after about 49 takes, I decided to just wing it. I turned on the recording, whooped and hollered and laughed through the whole take. It was the best thing I had done in the class! It was definitely not a very good solo (especially after I lost focus halfway through) but it makes me laugh every time I hear it.

I love it that I got a zero for this. It makes me see that we don't have to do things for the approval of others. We can do it because we enjoy it. If trying something new means I fail to impress or to get a good grade,  it is worth it for the laughs it will always give me!

"Do the one thing you think you cannot do. Fail at it. Try again. Do better the second time. The only people who never tumble are those who never mount the high wire. This is your moment. Own it. " - Oprah

Here it is for you to laugh as well:

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Election Day and making a difference

Yesterday was election day here in United States. I woke up in a good mood and after breakfast, I drove to cast my vote. Later, I arrived at the school where I teach music and while I waited for my students to arrive, I watched the voters come and go. After waiting for a long time and still no students, it occurred to me there must be some mistake. I went to check at the desk and sure enough, no classes today due to election day.

On my way home with my guitar in the back seat, I got an idea to spontaneously drop in a nursing home I have not been to for a long time. When I arrived, I was greeted by an elderly woman pushing a wheelchair that had plastic containers of cat food on the seat. She was coming from the back porch area when I went to say hello. After seeing the cat food, I asked, "Are there cats living here?"  She turned and pointed to the porch and said, "Yes we have 4 that live here and I just got done feeding them."    I told her I would like to meet them and we walked to the porch as she told me their names were: "Spikey, Sparky, Spunky and Starry. " I always enjoy meeting a fellow animal lover.

Once we were done visiting, I went inside to see who was around and who might want to sing a few songs. I met up with two elderly African American women sitting in the living room. At first, they eyed me suspiciously and asked, "Where are you from?? What is your name? " I told them my name and that I came by to see if anyone wanted to sing. One of them smiled and said, "Sing something. " So I started singing favorite Spiritual of mine:

"Gonna lay down my burden, down by the riverside
down by the riverside, Gonna lay down my burden.... "

Immediately the women's faces brightened and they sang along. Next we sang:

"This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine
let it shine, let it shine, let it shine."

We kept going for a long while. I was amazed with how fast I went from being a suspicious stranger to a friend in music. One of them asked, "So, how often are you gonna start coming here? "  When it was time to go, they thanked me for coming and told me to come back again soon. I left feeling happy and that I made a small difference.

This morning I woke up to the news of the election results. Many people are very upset with our new president. I too wanted another outcome and yet my experience yesterday at the nursing home fills me with hope. I can only do what i am given to do and that is music.  Though many are discouraged now, I know that music unites and heals and brings people together.
I will keep on keeping on singing my songs and doing the best I know. Please do  not lose heart. We will get through this!

God Bless America.